March 13, 2010

Film tells story of children in Ghana

DEBORAH SAYER

— By

Staff Writer

In Africa, the mango tree is noted for providing shelter from the hot sun and sustenance for the hungry. That symbolism is the premise behind an award-winning documentary film shot in Ghana, Africa, this summer by Bowdoin College alumni Anna Karass, Aisha Woodward and Steven Bartus, all international relations students.

Their film serves as an awareness tool for the nonprofit Maine Ghana Youth Network, founded in 2003 to provide educational opportunities and basic care for the children of Kissehman village, a slum-like region of Accra, Ghana. The work was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace.

The 22-minute documentary film, titled ''Under The Mango Tree,'' tells the story of the Kissehman children. Rather than focusing on their adversity brought about by war, disease and poverty, the film highlights the positive efforts Ghanaians are taking to better themselves and effect positive change in their nation.

''In Ghana, the mangos are free to eat off the trees to anyone who walks by,'' said Karass, a Whitefield native. ''And everything that MGYN does for education and feeding takes place under the mango tree. They have no structure to gather in. The mango trees supply food for the kids and shade for the classes. And, if you stood out in the heat in Africa, you see the need for shade.''

''I think it's a hopeful story,'' said Woodward. ''So many documentaries these days are about child soldiers and the AIDS epidemic. This was something small but very positive that people might like to come and hear about. What's important about the film is that while it depicts and is about a poor community, it's also about the efforts of one community to transform itself and provide better opportunities for its children. They receive no government funding. There is a very strong Maine connection here as almost all the money is raised here in Maine.''

The three junior film producers came to the project on behalf of the MGYN last March, after Karass attended an information night the organization held on campus.

''I thought the work they were doing was fantastic,'' said Karass. ''They were working at a grass-roots level to change things on a child-by-child basis but lacked the resources needed to get their name out there.''

Woodward, who'd previously traveled to Ghana, provided the necessary in-country connections for the project, while Karass lent journalism and photography expertise to the project, and Bartus provided the technical skills needed to film and edit the footage.

The trio journeyed to Accra July 13-Aug. 4. Their strategy: to allow the Kissehman children to tell their own story. The crew also handed out 25 cameras to students, ages 11-16, instructing them to capture images of things or people they felt were an integral part of their daily lives.

''This was a chance to give them ownership of what was important to them,'' said Karass. ''(The photographs) are really quite phenomenal.''

Once back in the U.S., the team sifted through the material to define a common theme. Bartus edited the footage and Karass developed nearly 300 photographs taken by the children, creating an exhibit that highlighted the stories of four of the children and their accompanying images.

The film has raised nearly $500 for the MGYN since premiering in September to limited audiences. When available, Karass, Bartus and Woodward lend their voices to the screenings, speaking on their experiences as first-time filmmakers and the people they met along the way.

''We were fortunate that we didn't go in with an agenda,'' said Woodward. ''It allowed us to do something that was representative of what was really going on.''

''Documentaries about Africa frequently take on a voyeuristic approach, making poverty into a spectacle for Western audiences,'' said Bartus, now teaching English in Ankara, Turkey. ''I've probably watched our documentary at least a hundred times while putting it together over the past few months, yet each time I see it, I'm reminded that it is truly the unique story of one community's efforts to improve the lives of its children. I hope that this documentary will serve as a reminder that ending poverty in Africa is not an implicit responsibility of the developed world. The work of MGYN in Kissehman is a testament to the potential of empowering Africans to engage in indigenous efforts to improve the livelihood of their communities.''

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at:

dsayer@pressherald.com

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